It is hard to believe it was just six short weeks ago that I graduated from Georgetown University.
Over my undergraduate career, I focused on government and international relations – learning about "developing" countries from a variety of theoretical perspectives.
Professors and students alike dropped buzz words — "dependency theory," "Washington consensus," "structural adjustment," "globalization" — but the ideas were often separated from their on-the-ground enactments.
A danger of academia is its closed-door nature. In an attempt to maintain objectivity, we sometimes lose the compassion that defines humanity.
As a student, I had strong opinions about development theories, gleaned from a combination of authors studied.
For me, however, theories became real when I compared them to my youth growing up in downtown Chicago, my study-abroad experience in Dakar, Senegal, and most recently my professional experience as a program assistant with Hope for Haiti.
In my short time in Haiti I have climbed mountains — both literally and figuratively.
Hope for Haiti works with 40 rural education partners, often teaching in one-room schools untouched by the "development" heard of elsewhere. We distribute medication through our low-cost clinic and mobile medical missions that can reach those where there is no doctor. Our public health pilot program has brought training to community health workers from 12 villages all throughout southern Haiti, and with it critical information on prevention and treatment of cholera, diabetes, anemia, malaria and other local maladies.
I have heard stories of natural disasters, unemployment, disease and heartbreak.
But I have also seen individuals strive to move beyond their constraints — working tireless hours with little compensation or outside support to create a better future for themselves and their children.
For me, what makes Hope for Haiti special is our commitment to sustainable development. We would essentially like to envision a future without foreign aid, a future where we put ourselves out of business. By partnering with local communities, development becomes "sustainable."
So often those in the "developed" world consider development a progression — from poor to rich, from uneducated to educated, from field to office. Sustainable development seeks to cater to the individual needs of a community.
Haiti does not need what I as a 22-year-old American girl would like to see. They need what they will use to better themselves.
Development stops being giving — an unequal relationship between a donor and a recipient — and starts being initiative — taken on by families, workers and of course partners like Hope for Haiti who can offer support.
I encourage everyone who is curious to read the theoretical literature of Putnam, Huntington, Sen, Weber and others. But more so, I encourage young people to reflect, to question their own moral compass — whether religiously or secularly inspired.
In my commitment for the next two and a half years living and working in Haiti, I am determined to ask questions of those around me, to talk to someone different than me every day, and to communicate through gestures, laughs and smiles when I cannot find the words.
After all, within the word "compassion" is the word "compass" — and I hope young people like me take the opportunity to steer us towards a more responsible future.
There is only one world, the progression of "development" withstanding, and it is up to us to make it better for all its creatures.
Hope for Haiti is a Naples-based 501(c)(3) charitable organization that has been committed to serving the Haitian people for over 20 years with the mission to improve the quality of life for the Haitian people, particularly children, through education, nutrition and health care.
To learn more about Hope for Haiti or support its efforts, visit www.hopeforhaiti.com or call (239) 434-7183.
Question from the Daily News:
Please name two things that have surprised you the most about Haiti. How have the realities differed from the academic expectations?
Answer: Haitians only wear "Kennedy clothing." Instead of reflecting the vibrant color I had always associated with Haiti, all the clothes here are a shade of over-worn grey. There is little to no local clothing production industry outside of school uniforms; all apparel is second-hand from U.S. charities or imported from stores. The lore is that when President John F. Kennedy was in office, he shipped over lots of old U.S. clothes — so now all imported clothes here are called "Kennedys." Instead of local entrepreneurs entering the market to provide an alternate competitive source of attire, the laws of supply and demand have become entirely irrelevant because people are willing to pay for the "cool" U.S. clothes.
Plus, like many new visitors to Haiti, I assumed a "dollar" meant a U.S. $1.
Big mistake! Tied to a history of devaluation and nationalism, Haitian money is quantified both as the Gourdes and the Haitian dollar. Five Gourdes make one Haitian dollar, which at some point was equivalent to the U.S. dollar. Today, however, it takes about 40 Gourdes to make a U.S. dollar, which makes the concept of the Haitian dollar very confusing to a new comer. Still, many stores prefer to use the Haitian dollar in their price tags. I have definitely improved my basic arithmetic skills here to convert Haitian dollars into Gourdes (multiply by five) into U.S. dollars (divide by 40) just to buy some toothpaste!